Lamborghini driving school: Take the fast-track to adrenalin academy

Who gets to do a 180-degree spin in a £100,000 automotive icon... legally? Richard Lofthouse did, and so can all lovers of Ferruccio's dream
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Here's something to take your mind off winter: a little memoir of the Lamborghini driving school. Put your name down, and you'll probably get a place this summer.

This morning, we're driving Gallardos down hairpin bends all the way to the racing track at Mugello. Mugello what? Yes - the track is owned by Ferrari, Lamborghini's arch rival. But the rivalry is not so immense as to prevent civility in business matters. And for today only, the track belongs to the Bolognese.

Possibly the most emotive event of the day has already taken place. Senior test-driver Mario Fasanetto leant over the bright yellow flanks of a Gallardo Spyder and turned on the ignition. For any other car, so what? But in the cool, early dawn of a Tuscan morning, high in the hills, the bark of the V10 was so unmistakably filled with anticipation that even the resident German shepherd dog twitched his ears and cocked his head.

Fasanetto then walked round to each of five other Gallardos - black, grey, silver, orange and yellow - repeating the act as if performing a holy ritual. Each new voice joined a rough chorus until the air became a choppy sea of delicious noise.

Around gathered a small group of journalists and Lamborghini customers, taut at the prospect of a day driving on one of the greatest racing tracks in the world. Without warning, after a long, authentically Italian delay, we're told to jump in and drive.

Born under the star of Taurus, Ferruccio Lamborghini decided to make the bull the icon of his new company in 1963, but what he really meant to say to Enzo Ferrari was: "Look, we're more manly than any prancing horse." Driving away in the Gallardo Spyder, it's patently clear that Audi ownership (since 1998) has enhanced the formula.

This engine makes a stupendous sound. Ten cylinders, five litres and 520bhp at 8,000rpm. Where Ferraris possess a high-pitched howl, like a wounded cat, Lamborghinis bellow like elephants high on rice beer.

Down at the track, the sun is high and a hot day beckons. Engines are cut and we are given a mini-lecture on how to sit and where to place our hands on the steering wheel. Disclaimer forms aside, there is no more bureaucracy, smoking is permitted in the pitlane and you're welcome to wear designer jeans. Just hand me another espresso and one of those delicious Tuscan pastries, and the day can begin.

Lamborghini is following a recent trend among manufacturers to take their customers towards the track. They held a winter driving academy last year to hone driver control on the ice, in September they held the event reviewed here at Mugello, and next January they will hold another winter academy at Cortina d'Ampezzo. Behind the scenes, there is a curious mixture of safety and performance criteria - customers get to work on emergency braking situations on a handling course, but they also get telemetry data on their track driving. There is no competitive element, but driving the track as fast as possible is a given. It's a Lamborghini, after all.

Speed is an interesting science, as I quickly discovered. During the first few laps, I fought with the steering wheel, carried too much speed into bends, muscled the car across to the cone-marked apex of each bend and braked violently. My lap times were nothing special and the car took a beating.

By the end of the day, I was starting to learn the crucial lesson, that to go faster you have to go slower. Tyres should be at the edge of their natural grip but not shedding speed through undue lateral friction, while steering, braking and gear changes should be smooth and calculated. My "slowest lap", meaning here my least adrenalin-pumping drive, was my fastest.

My abiding memory (this special day is already a bit golden) is not from the track, but from flinging a Gallardo round a handling circuit awash with water, practising under-steer and over-steer exercises. This was to promote safety, of course. One of the customers, a young chap who had driven up from Monaco in his own Gallardo Spyder, told me he had done the "over-steer exercise" in front of Le Casino de Monte-Carlo - to anyone else, a 180 degree power slide.

But ain't that cool? Who gets to do that with £100k exotica, where tyres are a thousand bob a corner and kerbing the thing would result in a Matterhorn-sized repair bill? It was surreal, unexpected and appropriate for a brand based on bulls.

As I remember it growing up, "skid-pan training" meant brief, heavily controlled snatches of cadence-braking in a knackered Ford Sierra on deliberately oiled-up patches of grubby apron in the English Midlands. Here, instead, we had the most unlikely four-wheel drive rally hero ever built, sporting upholstery bright enough to compete with the Tuscan sunshine, and on a day when the mercury nudged 38C.

And I learnt something, too, despite the inability of all the instructors to say much in English. Understeer corrects itself as long as you stayed steady on the gas once the front tyres had washed out - completely counterintuitive. Meanwhile, the 70/30 rear bias of the drive train meant that you could still do a very naughty 180 degree "casino" powerslide, covering the flanks of the car in filth.

But the top trick was the "pendulum" effect, or so-called "Scandinavian flick", beloved of Finnish rally drivers, where you steer sharply to the right in first gear, flay all 520 horses for the briefest moment before coming off the gas and steering sharply to the left. Already with its balance upset, the car is unseated by the second steering input and slides right the way round an imaginary hairpin bend with the docility of a well-trained dog. The finishing touch is to dab the throttle again half way round, rocketing the car away like Timo Mäkinen on a night stage, except that it's easy to forget to unwind the steering lock quickly enough, leaving you facing the wrong way. Hats off to the Finns, then.

Whether or not this learning process is more fun in a Lamborghini than a knackered Ford is a valid point, but also a stupid one. If you love Lamborghinis, the chances are €3,960 (£2,600) is a reasonable price to pay for a day out, especially given that Lamborghini scarcely makes a bean out of it, after costs.

Despite my initial scepticism, the whole experience, which included a feast on beef steak and Montalcino red wine, was so authentically tied to this corner of Italy that it renewed the Lamborghini myth without even trying.

From the effortlessly strutting demeanour of the instructors to my lap in a Murcielago LP640 in metallic fern green, this was a great day.

Lamborghini is surely one of the greatest, if not the greatest, automotive icons. For every inch that Ferrari has preened itself into an overly serious, self-absorbed brand personified by Michael Schumacher and Ron Dennis, Lamborghini seems to play in the sun. Whereas it was once a brand as renowned for its flaws as for its performance, and despite the paradox of it being revived by Germans from Ingolstadt, it is more than ever the charismatic embodiment of the word "supercar". The Gallardo Spyder is unequivocally the car to go for if you are able to afford one. But for my money, it is more fun to do unthinkable stunts in one for the day and then go home to your Fiat Panda to keep dreaming the Ferruccio dream.

Lamborghini Driving Academy: contact academy@lamborghini.com or your local dealer

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